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Zula Swanson

Savvy Businesswoman

Zula Swanson (1891–1973) was a savvy businesswoman, born on a cotton plantation in Jackson Gap, Alabama in 1891. In 1918, she moved to Portland, Oregon, where she worked as a dressmaker, and where she married shortly after arriving. The marriage did not last, and, with limited financial resources, Zula became a sex worker and managed to amass a large savings. In 1929 she relocated to Anchorage to escape charges of bootlegging and drunk driving.

Zula realized the financial opportunities of her profession in Anchorage and purchased property downtown, which she turned into a brothel disguised as a boardinghouse. She also owned the Rendezvous Hotel, which served as a meeting place for new arrivals seeking housing and job opportunities.

Zula continued to prosper in Anchorage, purchasing commercial and residential lots throughout the 1940s and 1950s, quickly becoming one of the largest landowners in the state. In 1962, she sold land on what is now 5th Avenue to JCPenney for an estimated $250,000––equal to roughly $2.1 million today.

While growing her business empire, Zula maintained an active role in civic life in Anchorage. She was one of the founding members of the Anchorage chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1951 (alongside #ExtraToughWomenAK post alum Blanche McSmith), and was a member of various community clubs, including the Daughters of the Elks. Zula passed in 1973, at the age of 82.

Did you know Zula Swanson or have a story you’d like to share about her? Share your images and stories with us on Instagram and Facebook by tagging us (@anchoragemuseum and #ExtraToughWomenAK) and we’ll add them to our ongoing digital curation project. Stay tuned for more information about the upcoming exhibition and be sure to check back for new #ExtraToughWomenAK posts.

Image Credit: Zula Swanson Photographs, Anchorage Museum, B1977.104.1


Check out this group photo of several Anchorage NAACP founders and members. Do you recognize a few of the faces? There are two #ExtraToughWomenAK alums in this photo – Blanche McSmith (labeled #2) and Zula Swanson (labeled #6). Pat Berkley (#5) also made an appearance in a previous post on the Alaska Black Caucus. This photo was recently donated to the Museum by Ed Wesley.

Blanche was a businesswoman and activist who worked to end discrimination in Alaska. She was one of four Black civil rights activists who engaged in sit-ins at the Pagoda restaurant in Anchorage in the early 1950s. She was also the associate editor of The Alaska Spotlight, Alaska’s first Black newspaper, served as the Anchorage NAACP chapter president, and represented the 10th District in the Alaska House of Representatives.

As a businesswoman, Zula amassed a large fortune by buying parcels of land throughout the Anchorage area in addition to running several businesses. She, along with Blanche, helped establish the Anchorage chapter of the NAACP after a racially-motivated arson attack burned down a Black family home in Roger’s Park in 1950.

Pat was active in the Black Civil Rights movement in Alaska, organizing a picket line in 1962 to protest the hiring practices at Carrs, the largest grocery chain in Alaska at the time. She was president of the Alaska Association of Colored Women’s Clubs in 1979, served on the Commission on the Status of Women from 1981-1983, was an active member of the NAACP, and served as the secretary of the Alaska Black Caucus.

To learn more about these women and others we’ve highlighted throughout the duration of our #ExtraToughWomenAK digital curation project, check out our website or by clicking the link in our bio. Stay tuned for more amazing women and be sure to come check out the Extra Tough: Women of the North exhibition, open now.

Photo credit: Anchorage Museum, Ed Wesley Collection

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